This year has been a great reinforcer of the enjoyment of the
process. The NBA season is 82 games, far more than many fans and
observers alike would like there to be, and I can't blame them.
(For the sake of player health and longevity, I'd love to see the
After a close loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night in the
Play-In Tournament, the Cleveland Cavaliers were ousted from the
playoffs entirely, meaning their season had come to an end.
"End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just
another path, one that we all must take."
- Me watching the Cavs
Pull up Basketball-Reference, and you'll find the Cavs with a
44-38 record and the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. A solid
record at the end of the season. A good one even, if taking the
past year into account. I was of the opinion that the Cavs might
jockey with Play-In positioning at points this year, but ultimately
would fall short of being a playoff team and take a meaningful few
steps as a young squad.
That's what makes the regular season so precious to me. Watching
the game-to-game, week-to-week evolution of this group was a
special endeavor this year. I relish growth, persistence and
consistency; the Cavs met all three needs with gumption. This is
not a "watch the games bro" take, but rather an "I'm so thankful I
got to watch the games bro" exclamation. Deducing what this team
was this season down to its final record is a disservice.
Just 11 games in, the Cavs lost Collin Sexton for the season. A
month-and-a-half later, they lost sixth man and backup point guard
Ricky Rubio as well. You might look at his efficiency or lack
thereof and question his impact, but Rubio gave the Cavs' bench a
verve that they were never able to replicate.
All three frontcourt starters missed significant stretches of
time, with Jarrett Allen's finger fracture throwing the team into a
tailspin shortly after the All-Star Break
None of the primary starters this season played 70 games.
This was a team that was 35-21 a week before the break
festivities in Cleveland, legitimately fighting for (and
maintaining) home-court advantage in the playoffs for a significant
stretch of the regular season.
The way the Cavs got there was even more enticing.
The first time I saw that J.B. Bickerstaff was starting Lauri
Markkanen at the 3, I was vexed. I understood why, but thoroughly
questioned its viability. Even prior to that, I was extremely
critical of the Markkanen sign-and-trade in the offseason. Well, I
was just flat-out wrong!
The three-7-footer lineup the Cavs started and leaned upon as
their bread and butter all year was a delight. The
big-to-big-to-big passing was joyous and impactful. It
will be interesting to find out whether teams try to replicate a
jumbo lineup without capturing the essence of why it worked. Having
three players who all have size, mobility and skill is not an easy
combination to find.
Markkanen's offense was up and down at times this year, but his
defense should be lauded. He was a very rough defender his whole
time in Chicago, and I was taken aback early this season by his
effort and attentiveness — which never really waned by my eye. His
game against Atlanta was phenomenal, even if marred by a late game
turnover. Again, process, process, process.
Jarrett Allen earned an All-Star nod through his all-around
improvements, becoming a legitimately switchable big man and the
anchor of the Cavs' defense in the paint as their primary
rim-protector. The offense really suffered without his gravity as a
roller and his screening ability when he was out. He found new
levels of aggression that he flashed late last year, and made it a
consistent staple this year.
Allen's presence and Markkanen's strides allowed Evan Mobley to
assert himself. His ground coverage is breathtaking, and it enabled
a ridiculously aggressive, effective and quirky 3-2 zone to bend
the court dimensions to the the Cavs' will.
It should not be possible to cover the rim to the arc the way he
does, but Mobley just does.
The flashes he showcased throughout the year as a face-up scorer
and passer were wild, and lend credence to his exciting future as
one of the brightest young stars in basketball.
I won't quibble with anyone who voted for another first-year
player as Rookie of the Year; there are so many different ways to
view, appreciate and evaluate the game. This rookie class is incredible. I am
still there with Mobley winning it.
Darius Garland quite literally was Cleveland's offense at points
this year when the team was depleted. His off-the-dribble ease and
marksmanship open up his game as one of the best passers in the
sport. In spite of the finish to the year, he and Allen were
rightful All-Stars at the time. Garland's growth over the past two
years, along with Mobley's ascension, provides the foundation of
one of the more intriguing young cores in the NBA. There's still a
great deal for the pair to grow both individually and together!
Kevin Love had an awesome bounce-back season, warranting Sixth
Man of the Year buzz before the Cavs (and he) tailed off down the
stretch. Cedi Osman is still an absolute bundle of chaos, but
Cleveland was better because of him, putting together his most
efficient season since his rookie year.
The Cavs will keep their first-round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft
(14th-best odds), as the pick will not convey to Indiana due to
lottery protections (part of the Caris LeVert trade). Given how the
season ended, this is a silver lining. Cleveland needs wing depth
and more shot creation.
I wrote about Isaac Okoro and his
impact earlier this season, highlighting the little things he honed
in on to imprint himself on both ends. He played 34 minutes
combined in the two Play-In matchups and took 6 shots. I don't have
an answer now — it's something I want to dive into further in the
offseason — but the Cavs really need Okoro to make significant
strides as an offensive player.
I do think some have been too quick to cast off the positive
things he has done and what he can provide, but Okoro's current
limitations were put on display in those contests. If he runs
ball-screens, the defense goes under and forces a
pass-out-and-reset or a shot off the dribble. If he's spaced off
the ball, he's left open in the corner. The defense is really,
really good, but the offense needs to come along.
Speaking of offense, the Caris LeVert trade was made with the
purpose of bringing in another shot-creator and offensive engine. I
am so interested to see what happens between LeVert and the Cavs
I understood why the Cavs made the trade at the time, going in
on this season to try and make a real playoff run without fully
hindering their intermediate future and flexibility. I just really
struggled to be into the move from a personnel perspective, and
I'll have even more questions once/if Collin Sexton returns next
I have no idea what to think about Sexton's future in Cleveland.
He is a really good player with some flaws that can be a bit
exacerbated playing alongside another small guard. His numbers were
down and his shot wasn't right to start the year, but he was
playing some of the best team basketball of his career to start the
year. I don't know what the answer is for Cavs president Koby
Altman, general manager Mike Gansey and the front-office brain
trust, but they have a lot of decisions to make over the next few
months as they continue to shape this team.
Hard decisions are a good thing! To look at where the Cavs were
two years ago at 19-46 with questions about their infrastructure to
where they're at now... that's pretty good!
The way they handle those head-scratching conundrums over the
summer will ultimately mold their future playoff aspirations and
viability. The 2021-22 Cleveland campaign was one of the more
unexpected and exciting runs that had some unfortunate road
But the point remains that the future of the Cavs is much
brighter today than it was eight months ago, and where this team is
at by this time next year will have been set up by the trials and
tribulations of this year.